TOKYO, Japan —- A nearly empty stadium that somehow still managed to be filled with warmth, emotion and hope. On a hot and humid summer night in Japan, the cicadas outside the Tokyo Olympic Stadium were the loudest sound as the few who were privileged to attend awaited the start of the opening ceremony of the 2020 Paralympic Games. Then as the countdown reached zero, the cicadas were quickly drowned out by thunderous applause.
It began with six Japanese Paralympians bearing the Japanese flag across the stadium, a single light illuminating them in the dark. They handed the flag off to seven members of the Self Defense Forces, who raised the flag on a pole as visually impaired Japanese singer-songwriter Sato Hirari sang their national anthem.
Then, the circus Karakuri performance, with a cast of all disabled performers ranging from young children to the elderly all dancing together around gears and levers.
The theme of the games are “moving forward,” a theme of highly emotional significance in a world battling to overcome a pandemic, and a historical moment fraught with strife and uncertainty. The motto is fittingly “United by Emotion.”
When the parade of nations began, the theme was the “winds of change,” with placards designed to look like flight information display boards and made from recycled PET bottles.
When Afghanistan was announced, a flag waved in solidarity without a team to follow it, there was an eruption of applause.
Out of 242 athletes named to the 2020 Paralympic Team USA, over 115 were set to attend the opening ceremony. Chuck Aoki and Melissa Stockwell were the Team USA flag bearers for this year’s opening ceremony.
Stockwell is a paratriathlete, a bronze medalist and a Wounded Warrior veteran who was formerly in the Army.
“As a veteran, carrying the American flag and representing my sport (triathlon), my country, my Paralympic family and my team — that is an incredible honor,” Stockwell told Team USA. “The Paralympics are a showcase of what we can overcome with the power of the human body and the human spirit, and I’m just so proud of where my story has brought me.“
Aoki is a wheelchair rugby captain whose team won a Silver Medal at Rio 2016.
“Being selected flag bearer is such a stunning honor that I never expected,” Aoki told Team USA. “I would not be in this position or be the athlete I am without them. When I am bringing in the flag, it is for all of them as well.”
Following the parade of nations was “the little one-winged plane,” a performance telling a story of a small one-winged plane struggling to gather the courage to fly, featuring a little girl in a wheelchair modeled like a one-winged airplane and a cast of disabled dancers and performers who help her find her confidence.
The President of the Tokyo Organising Committee Hashimoto Seiko and President of the International Paralympic Committee Andrew Parsons each spoke.
Hashimoto acknowledged the difficulties the world has been facing with COVID-19.
“I would like to express my gratitude and respect to all those around the world, including essential workers and those in medical services, who have shown such determination in overcoming these challenges,” said Hashimoto.
She thanked the Paralympians for their “hard work, dedication and perseverance” in the face of the pandemic, and expressed that they have her respect for the circumstances they’ve faced head-on.
Parsons dedicated his time to introduce the launch of WeThe15, a movement to shine a light on the disabled community that makes up 15% of the world population. He called the athletes “beacons of hope” and the “best of humanity,” telling them that now is the time to show the world their skill, strength and determination.
“When the shadow of uncertainty was upon us, they never stopped training, they never stopped pursuing their dreams, and they never stopped believing they would be here in this stadium tonight. They are a force of nature, a force for good,” said Parsons.
Their speeches were followed by the conclusion to the story of the little one-winged plane, and finally, the lighting of the torch, which began with a video and a performance by a “sun dancer” who moved on stage in a red dress as bright red, orange and yellow colors and lights spread throughout the floor and stadium.
The torch was designed with a cherry blossom motif, and the torch bearers lit the very first-ever hydrogen-fueled Paralympic cauldron. The flames grew tall, and fireworks shot into the sky, representing “all the stars that take wing.”
The 2020 Paralympic games will be truly historical— with 1,200 hours of broadcasting, the greatest amount of any Paralympics.
In addition, Tokyo became the first city to host the Summer Paralympic games twice, and there will be 162 delegations competing, which are three more than there were at the 2016 Rio Paralympics.
The opening ceremony will be broadcast on NBCSN live from 7-10 a.m. EST and will also re-air that night at 7-10 p.m. E.S.T.